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Dao Wai: Old Harbin, Good Harbin

Dao Wai is an old district of Harbin that has not yet been completely renovated for tourism. Go here and experience what this place is like before it is turned into another tourist attraction.

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“I think this part of the city is a little boring,” the receptionist of my hostel in Harbin spoke, “it is all things that were made by rich people from other countries.”

She was talking about the Dao Li district of Harbin — the city’s tourism epicenter, the section with all the old buildings that all the tourist come to take pictures of and go shopping in. My ears perked up at these words: it is rather odd to hear someone working at a hostel down talk the nearby attractions. Though I had to agree with her, walking around in a “living museum” is alright, but it’s a show that loses its luster after you’ve gawked at the same buildings a half dozen times and realize there isn’t much else to do but go shopping. On top of that, it is all too often the case that the people working in these places are invariably going to treat you like just another tourist moron.

“You should go to the Chinese part of the city,” the hostel receptionist suggested.

She then told me what bus to take to get to the Dao Wai district.

“It is full of old people, and many of the buildings are so old and falling down that people can’t live in them anymore.”

It sounded like my kind of place.

A half hour later I was there, it seemed as if I had entered a different city. I was away from the posh, reconstructed, refurbished, revitalized Harbin, and was in a place where the force of time was allowed to whittle away at the stone facades of the buildings, the streets, and even the people unabated. This was an old district, it was a poor, working class district, it was a district that had character that goes beyond the selling of cheap Russian trinkets, high fashion items, and specialty foods. “This is real life,” a commentator on my Youtube channel said about a video of this district that I published, and it probably couldn’t be put any better than that.

The receptionist was right, the buildings here were giving way to the decades and gravity, the streets were dirty, locals were doing their days rather than serving tourists. While the architecture here didn’t look any more “Chinese” than the main tourist district and the place was still full of buildings built by “rich foreigners,” it was clear that no rich foreigners were living in them anymore. This place was completely different, it had that wholesome, tight-knit, edgy, uber-interesting feel of un-ascended, normal China. You walk through these old districts with the feeling of impending surprise — you know that you’re going see something you’ve never seen before, and maybe even make a friend and have an experience that teaches you something.

If the object of foreign travel is to learn about life, the world, and yourself through going to places that are different from where you are from, by talking to the people who live there, and contrasting impressions, experiences, and memories, then these backstreets of China is ground zero for this occupation. The sensory stimulation of these places is absolute, and even after years in this country I’ve never walked through an old neighborhood in a Chinese city without seeing, learning, or experiencing something new.

I saw steam emitting from the doorway of a small restaurant and walked in. The customers turned surprised faces towards me as I called out my order and took a seat. The table tops were worn bare in places from thousands of elbows rubbing against them over dozens of years, the bamboo baozi racks were leaning sideways over vats that appeared to have broken and repaired myriad times, the menu board on the wall had layers of greasy residue build up upon it, the walls had that grotty, brackish color that seems to cover the interiors of cheap Chinese restaurants, the tiled floor was a little sticky.

The late 30-something year old waitress seemed taken aback at my intrusion. This was odd. I’m used to people in China being surprised, curious, or even nervous when I enter a restaurant that foreigners don’t typically go to, but she seemed overtly standoffish. For fifteen minutes I actually wondered if she really passed on my order to the cook or if I was being refused service– a persona non grata in this humblest of run down holes in the wall. She seemed like a rough sort of woman, wearing what I initially took to be a perma-scowl on her face.

After a while I began feeling restless, annoyed, and a little embarrassed about how I was being treated. Nobody was talking to me, just staring. I felt like that stranger in an Old Western film that walks into the wrong bar. I peered over the partition and into the kitchen to check if I could see the cook preparing my food. I was getting ready to get out of there when the waitresses locked her eyes onto my own:

“Are you a Russian?” she asked bluntly.

“No, I’m not a Russian, I’m an American,” I responded.

A smile then flung itself across her face and her eyes lit up with a jolt. I nearly recoiled from the shock wave that emitted from her mood shift. She then quickly complimented me on my Chinese and began excitedly cackling to a table full of women about how I can speak Chinese and how I came into the restaurant and ordered eggs and fried noodles. I then became the object of curiosity and inquiry — the role that I’ve become used to filling in this country. The Chinese seem to show courtesy by asking a lot of questions, and I answered them as they were shouted out from around the diminutive restaurant.

Apparently, they don’t like Russians too much here.

I suppose this is to be expected. Russia lies just to the north, and this region was once under the control of that nearby power. Some people say that this current era of increased international closeness, cohesion, and communication will spurn a new age of peace and understanding. My take is much different: the closer groups are to each other the more they tend to hate each other. The biggest enemy of pretty much any culture, group, or tribe is not those who reside on the other side of the world, but those who live right over the border, over the next hill, on the other side of the tracks, right next door.

I finished my meal and began walking around the un-renovated parts of this old district. I walked through a street market and made a video.

As I stood asking a vendor about her bin of giant squirming larvae (“How do you eat these things?”) I noticed a couple rows of old, rickety tables lined up outside of a run down restaurant that had a couple groups of people drinking at them. They already had an army of drained bottles sitting in front of them, and I watched them tip back their glasses for a moment. It was a good beer drinking day: hot, sunny, and I had nothing better to do. Harbin is also an epicenter of beer production in China, and the city boasts a couple of national breweries — one called, of course, Harbin.

It seemed like a pretty good idea to get myself one of these well-nomenclated brews, sit back, and just watch the market action unfold around me. I sat down at one of the tables and tossed the waitress three kuai (super cheap) and she brought me a refrigerated, 750 ml bottle of beer. I cracked it open and took that first satiating drink, watched a guy push by a rickety cart full of random bits of market stuff, and leaned with my back against the table. But I was only allowed one small sip of solitude, and almost before I could swallow that first gulp a woman from a group sitting near me invited me over to join them.

She asked right off if I was a Ruski — they use that word here rather than the Chinese Eguoren.

“No, I’m not a Russian. I’m an American,” I repeated for the second time in twenty minutes and received a similar reaction.

This was exactly what I was looking for: a group of people just hanging around drinking beer on a warm summer day with nothing much to do but talk and be on the receiving end of my fool questions. I pulled up a stool and the woman clenched my arm and shuddered with what seemed to be delight.

I couldn’t remember the last time a woman seemed so happy to be sitting near me. Though this wasn’t any sort of romantic prelude, as this lady was out of my league — the age league that is. She was probably around 50, she had a son my age. This was more of the excitement of having a new guest at their table, a new guest from far, far away who wasn’t even a Ruski. This wasn’t a part of town where the locals are bored of looking at people like me, this is not a place where a foreigner means a potential customer or someone who is more than likely going to be an annoyance because of their linguistic short comings.

It is in these run down, homely, “real life,” parts of China where you can sit down at a table, crack open a beer, and expect to make friends before you can take your second sip. It is easy to meet people here, it is easy to find people to talk with, it is easy to engage this culture and learn from it. This is probably the reason why I’ve spent so much time in this country.

I was then introduced to the group. There was a shoe maker, an amateur photographer, a seamstress, and a woman who said she was a teacher. They all appeared to be in their fifties, working class, borderline poor. They offered me all the various foods and tidbits that were spread over the old wooden table: onions dipped in sauce, random chunks of meat, tofu, everything they had on their table. They would take turns picking up a piece of food and handing it over to me, each time saying that it was special Harbin cuisine.

They were smiling, laughing, getting drunker and drunker, filling me up with food and, yes, nearly endless amounts of beer. When I’d come close to getting a bottle half way down a full bottle would be placed in front of me. They asked all kinds of questions, the Chinese way of saying “We appreciate your company.”

I could understand roughly half of what the photographer and the two women asked, but the shoemaker seemed to only know how to speak in spits, grunts, and roars. He was a heavy-set bald guy with a mouth lined with jagged, widely gaped, saw-like teeth. His face would get bright red as he would roar out a string of un-enunciated verbal racket through a mouth stuffed with food, spraying the table with half-chewed shrapnel. He would then pause for a moment to watch my reaction and then roar again in equally incomprehensible delight when he was sure that I couldn’t make out a word of it. The guy, for the most part, was a living parody of himself: a fat, bald, jagged toothed shoemaker jovially getting drunk in an old street market. All I really had to do was dodge his spittle and raise my drink and toast him at the end of each roar.

The show in this country is where the people are — not the things, not the sights. To truly be entertained, educated, enthralled here, walk out to a working class neighborhood, sit out in front of a beat up, run down restaurant, crack open a fifty cent beer, open yourself up for conversation, and see what happens.

Though I have to say I feel fortunate that I had the opportunity to visit Dao Wai when I did. The renovators have already arrived. Two streets have just been polished up, redone with antiquated garb, packed with nice restaurants, gentrified for tourism.


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Filed under: China, Travel Guide, Travel Stories

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3717 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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